Tools for Tutors: Get Outside and Learn – the Importance of Experiential Learning

First-hand experiences play a crucial role in developing students’ skills and knowledge outside the traditional classroom setting by exposing the learners to a variety of situations where they are required to apply abstract ideas to real-life problems and projects. When students temporarily abandon their desks and books in order to gain new insights and develop innovative approaches to their studies, their learning experience becomes transformational.

Below are some examples of the types of activities that academic staff can facilitate outside the classroom:

  • Field trips
  • Guided/discovery walks
  • Internships
  • Community-based projects
  • Cross-disciplinary projects
  • Shadowing professionals

However, just telling the students to get out there and learn is not enough, and tutors need to consider what guidance and support they can give to make sure these activities are truly beneficial.

So, inspired by Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, we would like to establish a simple framework for designing experiential learning activities and supporting students’ learning autonomy. Following the suggested format will encourage your students to trust their curiosity. Also, by asking them to critically reflect on what they have learned, how they could apply their newly acquired knowledge, and what they would do differently next time, you will help them place their skills and experience in a wider context and explore ways of showing the impact it has made on them. Moreover, we would like to add another dimension to the critical reflection and encourage you, the tutors, to reflect on the process as well: what went well, what you could have done differently, what you will change next time, your main learning points. With every new student cohort, you go on a learning journey too. Seeing problems and ideas through your students’ eyes can inspire a fresh approach to your own research and teaching practice.

How to design effective experiential learning activities?

  1. Design a concrete experiential learning activity: What is it? Why have you chosen this specific activity? Consider how you are going to ‘sell’ it to your students. For example, tell them what they are expected to achieve and how they can connect it with what they know already.
  2. Why should they care? As part of the ‘selling’ process, find reasons why your students should care about the project or cause. What can you do to make them want to engage with it?
  3. Build in interim reflection and self-assessment: Schedule prompts and activities for learners that will help them monitor their progress. How are things going? What impact have they made? What have they learned so far? How have they applied their learning to new situations and challenges?
  4. Tutor reflection: Don’t forget to reflect on your approach as well. Is everything going according to plan? How much support do your students need? Do they feel they can take risks and fail? Do you control their behaviour or encourage autonomy? What could you improve? What have you learned yourself?
  5. A final reflection on learning: Ask your students what they have learned and how they will apply this learning to future problems and projects. Make sure they offer specific and relevant examples. You could ask them to write a reflective journal or blog post.
  6. Learning shared is learning doubled: While personal reflections help learners to connect emotionally with their experiences, there is a great benefit in sharing one’s learning experiences with others while hearing how they may have approached similar tasks and challenges. You can facilitate this by creating a learning community as part of the experiential learning experience. How about asking the students to prepare short presentations on what their main learning points were. Be creative and ask them to represent their learning journeys through collages and mind maps.

To sum up, while the focus on attainment and exam results is important, it is equally crucial to remember that your students are individuals who are keen to pursue their interests, find practical solutions to great problems and want to get out there to learn by doing. For example, applying abstract concepts to current challenges facing society, such as combating the effects of climate change, will provide a lesson for life and connect the learners with their communities. So, by tapping into that individual curiosity and self-motivation, tutors can make a great impact that will last outside the classroom and may even change the world.

If you have facilitated experiential learning activities and would like to share your thoughts with others, please get in touch. We would love to write more about it!

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Reflect:

Now that you have read this article, take a few minutes and jot down answers to the questions below. This will help you remember the most insightful points and put together an action plan that works for you:

  • What inspired you?
  • As a result, what do you want to do more of?
  • And what do you want to do less of?
  • What will you do next to achieve these goals?

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